Having done his best to fit in all year, the Los Angeles Lakers’ win over the LA Clippers showed how Kyle Kuzma is now accomplishing that goal.
He’s been a natural-born on-ball scorer since entering the league in 2017. The presence of LeBron James forced him off the ball and the arrival of Anthony Davis slotted the third-year forward into a tertiary role more talented players than him have struggled to acclimate to.
Kuzma’s counting numbers dipped as a result of fewer minutes, but his efficiency fell as well while his shot selection got worse.
Against the LA Clippers on Sunday, those scoring woes continued for the Los Angeles Lakers’ supposed third option with just eight points on 3-of-8 shooting.
But in what was one of the Lakers’ biggest wins of the season against their intra-stadium rivals, Kuzma gave a national TV audience a glimpse at the role he’s been embracing for some time now that might not be as stylish but could be more impactful.
Kuzma paced the Lakers in rebounds with a game-high 10 in just 22 minutes of action including three at the offensive end.
A little more than a fifth of his defensive minutes against the Clippers were spent guarding Kawhi Leonard. Another 21.0 percent was spent chasing Landry Shamet around the 3-point line and 12.1 percent in front of Lou Williams.
Both Leonard and Williams still got theirs — Shamet was 0-of-2. That Kuzma is tasked with that challenge at all signals a level of confidence the Lakers continue to foster through opportunity.
“When I have an opportunity to guard people my size, I’m more keyed in,” Kuzma said via ClutchPoints. “Allowing myself to use my body, my agility, and other things instead of getting pounded in the chest.”
LA has attempted to have Kuzma defend the small-ball forwards he stands across from all season long. At 220 pounds, he’s struggled to physically compete with those matchups, prompting Frank Vogel to turn Kuzma loose on opposing wings.
At 6’9” with a seven-foot wingspan, the more perimeter-based assignments have shined a light on Kuzma’s defensive prowess which was also on display several weeks ago against the Boston Celtics.
In that narrow two-point victory, Celtics players shot 3-of-10 when guarded by Kuzma as well as 1-of-4 from downtown. The list of matchups includes Gordon Hayward (1-for-3), Jaylen Brown (1-for-3) and even Jayson Tatum, who scored just two points in the 1:49 time Kuzma defended him.
Kuzma’s career hasn’t started as it normally does for youngsters in their first few years, not with the addition of two superstars to reinvigorate a sunken flagship big-market NBA franchise. It’s why he’s disappeared at times and looked lost in others, unable to figure out how to best fit in on a team that didn’t need what he originally brought to the table.
The Clippers will almost assuredly stand in the Lakers’ way of the Finals and LeBron James can only guard one of Kawhi and Paul George for so long at a time.
One of LA’s season-long weaknesses has been the absence of wing defenders, but Kuzma seems to be filling that gap as best he can.
It’s not the responsibilities he envisioned for himself after averaging 17.3 points per game across his first two pro seasons, but Kyle Kuzma’s increased commitment to the defensive end is what will ultimately determine his value and contributions towards this championship-contending team.